The Sense of an Ending

Every time I’ve spoken to someone about Julian Barnes, Booker winning novel, The Sense of an Ending, or have read a review or a blog post discussing it, sooner or later the commentator has said the equivalent of “and when I got to the end I had to go back and start to read it again to see what I had missed”.  This is one of the reasons that I left myself enough time before today’s Book Group to ensure that I could read the book very slowly indeed, making copious notes as I went along.  I hate the idea of re-reading again immediately.  When I’ve finished a book I like to give it time to inhabit some of the many empty spaces in my mind and give myself the opportunity to ruminate on it even when my brain is occupied with half a dozen other completely unrelated issues. I might go back after a respectable period has passed, but to re-read immediately doesn’t appeal to me at all.

As it happens, I don’t think I would have been any more secure in respect of what had actually happened in the life of Tony Webster after a second reading than I was after the first, because one of the points that Tony, the narrator, presses home repeatedly is that the idiosyncrasies of memory make unreliable narrators of all of us, and anyway, even if they didn’t, Tony isn’t above altering the past as he recounts it in order to make himself shine a little brighter and appear a little less ordinary.

I did slightly odd thing when I first met Margaret. I wrote Veronica out of my life story… It’s possible that when I finally got around to telling Margaret about Veronica, I’d laid it on a bit, made myself sound more of a dupe, and Veronica more unstable than she’d been.

Although, as he recognises, the person ultimately most likely to be fooled by such alterations is the individual themselves.

How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but – mainly – to ourselves.

A second reading might have made me clearer about the things that Tony says happened in his past but whether it would have made me any clearer about what actually did happen is another matter altogether.

The reliability of memory is just one of a number of related themes that Barnes explores in this book and it is the careful way in which they are interwoven which makes it such a satisfying read. As the quotation above suggests, the passage of time, often associated with the flow of water, is another. Speaking of the Severn Bore Tony says:

It was… unsettling because it looked and felt quietly wrong, as if some small lever of the universe had been pressed, and here, just for these minutes, nature was reversed, and time with it.

And when he is forced to engage with a version of the past that he has tried to deny, or at best, forget, he recognises that

[t]here is objective time, but also subjective time… And this personal time, which is the true time, is measured in your relationship to memory. So when this strange thing happened – when these new memories suddenly came upon me – it was as if, for that moment, time had been placed in reverse. As if, for that moment, the river ran upstream.

At university Tony has read History and so inevitably there are also discussions about who gets to write the Chronicle of the past.  As a school boy he trots out the cliché that History is the lies of the victors, but in his personal life he comes to recognise that it is also the self-delusions of the defeated and acknowledges that

this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.

Memory, History, Time itself, cannot be trusted.  Who then is capable of saying what is real and what is not?

You will have noticed that I have carefully said very little about what happens in this novel.  This is partly because to do so would be to spoil it for those who have yet to read it, but mainly because I am still not certain what did happen, what I can trust, and what is in Tony’s mind.  That you will have to decide for yourself. What I do know is that it is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read and one to which I shall definitely return, if not for that immediate read.

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16 thoughts on “The Sense of an Ending

  1. I have been meaning to read this–to the point that I ordered it from the UK last year before it was available in the U.S. Sometimes I simply forget I have a book. Thank you for reminding me: it sounds like a lovely, challenging read.

    1. Frisbee, I can’t think of anything that I can compare it to. I kept saying in discussion this afternoon that I wasn’t prepared to believe anything Tony told me and the other members of the group kept saying well why read it then? But it is so full of truth of a different sort that it is completely remarkable.

  2. Thanks, Alex, and so glad to have you back reading and reviewing. As an historian, these are the kinds of questions that fascinate me. I have been sorting them out in a cluster of Australian books by Grenville and Clendinnen. You might especially like Clendinnen’s Tiger Eye.

    And thanks for sending me to “The Jewel in the Crown”

    1. I imagine we have a lot of interests in common because my research field is narrative organisation and how people choose to put their stories together.

      I love Grenville’s work. She’s one of my favourite authors. However, I haven’t heard of Clendinnen. I’m off to see what the library has right now.

      I’m sure you’ll love the Scott. It’s not an easy read but well worth the effort.

      1. Yes. We do share some basic interest. I think that is why your words resonant with me so often. More specifically I am interested in how women from various times and places shape their narratives. It’s a topic I have been playing with since I retired and I don’t have the theoretical background for it.

        I too love Grenville’s writing. That is part of why I am bothered by the way she treats indigenous people. As she explicitly says, she doesn’t try to get inside them the way she does her anglo characters. I am working on a post explaining what I mean.

        1. I’ll look forward to reading that. I’ve been meaning to find a copy of her book about the writing of ‘Secret River’ which I suspect contains her own discussion.

          1. I just got an email from my library telling me that they had not been able to find a copy of Searching for the Secret River to borrow for me. Only a couple of US libraries own copies. All of have read so far are excerpts.

  3. I think you’re absolutely right that a second read wouldn’t make the facts any more clear than the first reading did. I skimmed quite a lot of the book over again after I finished it because I was interested in how Barnes put the story together, and I think Barnes leaves many different possibilities open.

    1. What amazes me, Teresa, is how a book where it is impossible to be certain what, if anything, is true can be so completely true to our experience of memory, time and story. I think it is truly remarkable.

  4. Thanks, Alex for not saying what happens in this novel as I, for one, haven’t read it yet. I think that memory is a strange thing. My job used to involve interviewing people about their memories of using a path (I dealt with claims for paths to be recorded as public rights of way) and I was often surprised at how people’s recollections were so changeable. As tor myself I found when talking to my sister that our memories of our childhood varied so much – she saw things from a different perspective, I think.

    1. Margaret, I used to work with an expert in forensic linguistics who had a massive row with a judge on one occasion because the judge reckoned it would be all right to hold proceedings in camera as if they then decided that the public could hear the evidence they would be hearing the same memories that had been reported in the closed session. My friend lost the original row, but then won out when the hearing was opened up and the two transcripts became available. There were some parts of the evidence that were so different it was hard to believe it was the same person.

  5. I must admit to reading this with indecent haste for a book group meeting. I never want to read book group books too early, for fear of forgetting them in the stream of books that follow. I think I finished this whilst cooking dinner.

    This is a slippery book and deserves careful reading. Thank you for reminding me to revisit it at a more leisurely place.

    1. I’m the same Karen. I always try and ration myself immediately before a book group meeting to make sure that I finished the book either the day before or on the day itself. Usually, I’m scrambling to get to the end. However, with this one I’d heard so much about how thought provoking it was that I made sure I had time to read it slowly. I’m really glad I did that, but it hasn’t negated the necessity of going back and reading it again.

  6. I’m so glad you loved this as I am a long-term Barnes fan (although I have yet to read this – I’m doing that crazy thing of saving it up for a treat, when really I should just get on and read it). I’ll be sure to take plenty of time over reading it and thanks to your review, I am sure that will be sooner rather than later.

    1. I came across something yesterday that triggered a link in my mind between Barnes and Poststructuralism. This is probably a connection I should have made years ago, but never having studied English Literature I don’t have any background in Literary Theory. Now I want to go back and re-read everything he’s ever written.

  7. I have tried doing an immediate reread with other books, and I found it didn’t help me understand it better. That’s not to say it would never work, or that there aren’t good reasons for doing a reread right away (writing a review or article, e.g.), but I found that I came away with basically the same understanding the second time as the first. I enjoyed the Barnes very much too — it was very satisfying, even if I didn’t understand it fully!

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